Abuse in Dating Relationships: Young People's Accounts of Disclosure, Non-Disclosure, Help-Seeking and Prevention Education

Article excerpt

Across the Western world the research literature documents the onset of violence and abuse in adolescents' heterosexual dating relationships. Comparatively little research, however, has examined how young people deal with the aftermath of such violence or abuse. This paper presents findings related to young people's disclosure or non-disclosure following experiences of abuse or violence. Findings are reported in two sections. The first section draws on material from a survey of 373 high school students that asked questions about abuse disclosure or nondisclosure and the respective consequences of each. The second section focuses on young people's talk about helping services and the prevention of relationship problems through education--material extracted from focus group data involving 101 high school students. Survey findings indicate variable patterns of disclosure across emotional abuse, sexual coercion, and physical violence, with disclosures made primarily to friends. Focus group data suggest that a number of barriers may operate to preclude help-seeking, including embarrassment, concerns about confidentiality, and lack of trust. These findings are discussed in the context of implications for service providers and school education programmes.


During adolescence the majority of young people enter into heterosexual romantic relationships. While for many the experiences of such relationships will be, in the main, positive, a growing research literature suggests that between 12% (Henton, Cate, Koval, Lloyd, & Christopher, 1983) and 59% (Jezl, Molidor, & Wright, 1996) of young people may experience emotional abuse, physical violence, or sexual coercion. The literature is comparatively sparse, however, regarding the extent to which young people affected by abusive experiences disclose to others and, in addition, what the consequences of disclosure or non-disclosure may be. In a seminal study of relationship violence amongst an adolescent population Henton, Cate, Koval, Lloyd, and Christopher (1983) found that their participants generally disclosed to friends rather than family or counsellors. Almost a decade later, Peterson and Olday (1992) noted a similar trend in addition to finding that females were more likely to talk to someone than males. Given the sparsity of research in the dating violence literature regarding disclosure and help-seeking in the aftermath of abusive experiences, two relevant bodies of literature appear to be useful. One of these is the sexual coercion/date rape literature on reporting/help-seeking behaviour, and the other the general help-seeking behaviour literature regarding adolescents who experience emotional distress. Unfortunately neither of these literatures is substantive; nonetheless there are some noteworthy findings in relation to each.

Within the date rape literature researchers consistently report low rates of disclosure, both informally within support networks, and more formally to the police or a rape crisis centre. About 20-40% of young people (high school and university populations) disclose sexual victimisation (e.g., Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987; Pitts & Schwartz, 1997; Patton & Mannison, 1995). Formal disclosure or reporting rates appear to be significantly lower, a figure of 5% found in Koss's (1988) research. In a New Zealand study (Martin, 1996) one third of the women surveyed in a Women's Health Survey reported they had never previously disclosed their sexual victimisation, and only a few (1.6%) of these women reported their experience to the police.

Amongst the reasons cited for non-reporting of sexual incidents in The International Crime Survey conducted in New Zealand in 1992 were that the incident was not serious enough and that respondents had resolved it themselves (Statistics New Zealand, 1996). The range of reasons for non reporting of sexual victimisation, particularly acquaintance rape, in the international literature include: (a) not wanting to get the attacker into trouble, (b) embarrassment over the details of the rape, (c) fear of retribution from the attacker, (d) the belief that the rape was their fault, (e) that they will not be believed, and (f) that nothing will be done (Bechhofer & Parrot, 1991; Pino & Meier, 1999; Warshaw, 1988). …


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